Surface Detail: Microsoft's Tablets Are Too Big To Fail

Inevitable branch-out or needless dilution; mounting desperation or a prelude to a Nokia takeover. Surface struck chords with the Windows faithful and rang warning bells among skeptics, with the analysis as deep as Microsoft's launch details were shallow. Yet one thing's clear even at this early stage. No matter whether block-wrapping queues mark Surface's in-store arrival, or if sales of the tablet make Zune look like a blockbuster, Microsoft will be crowing its legacy.

Microsoft's launch event for Surface was an uneasy mix of screw-up and success. For the geeks it was a travesty: Microsoft dragged them to LA on the grounds of little more than rumor and intrigue, refused to tell them the specific location until a few hours before, and then tightly controlled hands-on time afterwards. Exact technical specs were in just as short supply as playtime opportunities.

Yet despite frustrating and infuriating the media, Surface has sat at the top of the attention stream for a week. Microsoft has been catapulted into the headlines of tablet-centric coverage – a place you'd traditionally find Apple occupying – and the feedback has been in general quite positive. The company scored points for its industrial design and apparent built quality, and the Metro UI of Windows 8 is a crisp and honest alternative to the faux-leather and metal-effect UIs of iOS and Android.

Does that mean Microsoft has a hit on its hands. Unfortunately there's already a track record to look back to, and it's not an especially promising one. Windows Phone mustered just as much eager, attentive and – at times – positive press as Surface has this past week, yet actual sales have struggled to make a dint against rival smartphones. Microsoft even brought a misery-chaser to the Surface announcement, confirming on Wednesday that all of the early adopters of Windows Phone wouldn't be getting the new version this fall. The company couched its bad news with the promise of some new visual glitz, but it's hard not to be disappointed if you're just a few months into the contract of a smartphone facing limited upgrade potential.

[aquote]Xbox is the exception not the rule[/aquote]

That shaky ground is the place Microsoft has – perhaps surprising to the company itself – found it now occupies. It's still hugely successful in terms of finance, buoyed in no small part by Windows licensing, yet it struggles to demonstrate innovation or gain traction in all but gaming. Xbox is the exception not the rule, with Windows 8 yet to prove its mettle and Windows Phone seemingly incapable of doing so.

Faced with that, you can see why Microsoft might risk the sanctity of its OEM relations and wade more seriously into its own hardware range. The company has carefully paved the way for several potential outcomes: if Surface sells well, then Microsoft is likely to spin it out into a whole series of devices. If it tanks, Microsoft will rebrand it a design exercize intended to spur OEMs into innovation and action, quietly retire it – perhaps with the comment that "we've always primarily been a software company, and Surface was just a temporary showcase for that software" or something similar – and forever protest that it wasn't just another KIN.

Because, at the end of the day, Surface isn't about tablets: it's about Windows. Microsoft can't afford to fail with Windows 8, and it will blatantly do whatever it can to make sure there's no chance of that happening. If that means taking the reins in device production, so be it; if that requires prodding other companies into action with a keenly-timed and eye-catching device showcase, then that's what Surface can be. And, if the post-launch hype does in fact translate into keen sales, then there's a well known – and struggling – Finnish mobile device company out there that's been muttering about the importance of tablets for some time, and that's ripe for takeover.

As products go, Surface is simply too important to Microsoft to let something so mundane as device sales decide its fate.